Tiny Data Center Changes Lead to Big Savings

June 15, 2016 By Carl Weinschenk

Facebook data centerThere are tiny changes going on in energy management. Indeed, these changes – in data centers and elsewhere – are so small that they are impossible to see. However, their impact, already significant, will continue to grow and should be tracked by energy managers.

The changes are at the microscopic level and focus on such things as photonics and virtualization. The reality is simple: Computer equipment uses prodigious amounts of energy. Changing processes and procedures in ways that reduce energy use even by a tiny amount cascades when repeated millions or billions of times and results in great efficiencies and savings. It sounds a bit esoteric, but energy managers and planners must track research to design facilities, procedures and management tools that are future-proofed to optimize these techniques as they become available.

Last week, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) said that it is providing $25 million in funding for the new Energy-efficient Lightwave Integrated Technology Enabling Networks that Enhance Data centers (ENLITENED). The goal, according to the press release, is to double data center efficiency through innovative designs and methods.

There are many approaches to improve energy efficiency in data centers, but ultimately the metal interconnects currently used to transmit information between the devices within a data center will limit efficiency gains. ENLITENED seeks to overcome the limitations of these interconnects and to prioritize overall data center energy efficiency.

ENLITENED aims at four areas: Streamlining interconnects; development of advanced photonic switches; using these advances to create new data center network architectures and helping to commercialize what is created.

The idea of virtualization is simple, though its execution is very complex. Computing devices of all sorts only use a small amount of their overall capacity. Virtualization is the installation of multiple operating systems – and, thus, multiple “virtual” devices — on a single physical structure. This reduces cooling and electrical needs. And, since the computers are now non-physical “virtual” devices, if the interconnections are fast enough, the various tasks associated with computing operations can be done in different places.

Virtualization is a winner for energy managers because it reduces the number of physical machines needed for a given amount of computing operations, since the the various devices run more fully loaded. This reduces the amount of devices needed. This has the side benefit of reducing HVAC requirements since their are fewer devices to keep cool.

This is the heart of the cloud concept. Though it is a year old, a report from The Optical Society’s Industry Development Associates suggests how the chip level changes lead to the bigger changes with which energy managers are more familiar. For virtualization to work, data transfer between now separate functions must be very fast. That is happening, according to the report:

Disaggregation in the data center refers to the dis-integration of traditional server architecture to create modular, pooled resources – such as pooled microprocessors, memory or storage. Disaggregation improves efficiency and data capacity. Optical technologies are making progress toward enabling the disaggregated data center architecture by reducing cost and improving performance bandwidth provisioning between racks.

Saving money in data centers at the microscopic level is a hot topic and is the subject of a tremendous amount of research. These changes are not enough to actually reduce the overall amount of energy data centers consume. The rise in demand simply is too great. Virtualization is simply a tool that can slow the rise in energy demands.

A next step may be to eliminate interconnections – at least, those that are wired – between virtualized computing elements. In April, Data Center Knowledge posted a story about research being done by faculty member Amlan Gaguly at Rochester Institute of Technology’s Kate Gleason College of Engineering. Gaguly has won a five year grant totally almost $600,000 from the National Science Foundation. The research focuses on wireless approaches to interconnection.

These ongoing changes indeed are small. But, cumulatively, they soon will make the data center of a just a few years ago difficult to recognize. Energy managers and associated people must follow this transforming trend.

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